Customer Interviews: Introduction

An important part of finding a repeatable and scalable business model – as per Steve Blank’s definition of a startup – is to conduct customer interviews.

A customer interview is a structured way to find out if you are solving a problem that your customers cannot easily solve by themselves, and so painful that they would actually pay to have it solved.

Unfortunately I often see founders get so obsessed with cool tech that they create a product that don’t solve any problems (see the now infamous case of the Juicero).

To avoid falling into this trap, at the METRO Accelerator we use the methods laid out by Steve Blank in his classic book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. As Jens Lapinski, Techstars Managing of the METRO Accelerator for Hospitality, always tells our founders: “No other book should be read until you have read this book.” We combine it with the methods Eric Ries explains in his book The Lean Startup, also a must-read for entrepreneurs (a little-know fact: Eric Ries was a student of Steve Blank).

We base the first weeks of the program on a simple premise: You must get out of the office and meet face-to-face with your customers as early as possible.

I find that although many entrepreneurs read books like The Lean Startup, they have difficulty putting the methods into practice. How many founders actually write out their assumptions and map how they’ll test them? A main benefit of the accelerator program is that we coach the founders to structure the thinking behind their customer research so they can focus on what’s most important to them. The goal is to teach them the method, because it is an iterative process — not only will they use it several times with their current product, but also to launch new products or features later on.


Discovery and Validation interviews

Steve Blank outlines two different types of customer interviews on the road to product-market fit.

  • Discovery interviews are conducted at the beginning of your product’s life – you actually don’t even need a product; just a feeling there is a problem to solve is enough. In this phase, the goal is to listen to your potential customers. I cannot emphasize listening enough; you should not try to sell any idea, just focus on getting to know your customers’ real problems as they see them.

Founders may disregard discovery interviews because they think they already understand the problems they will solve, but unless you are designing a solution for people just like you, trust me that you will often be very surprised by your customers’ thoughts and behaviors. (I will expand on this point in a following post).

  • The second type is the validation interview. This should be undertaken only after you have an understanding of the problem and an insight into how you can solve it for your customer. At this stage, you can go further and test if your customers will actually pay for your product, but you still need to be careful how you conduct the interviews. It’s very easy to get biased results because your customers won’t want to disappoint you by calling your baby ugly. How to unbias your interviews? Tip #1 is to erase the word “would” from your vocabulary, but I’ll go into more detail in a follow-up post.


From corporates to startups, all teams launching a new product or service – whether in an existing or a new market – should conduct customer interviews. Without customer research, you take the risk of discovering a big gap between your hypothesis and reality when it’s too late to change.


In the next two posts I’ll cover how to set up and conduct customer successful interviews.


If you haven’t read the Four Steps to the Epiphany yet, click on the link to get a short preview version, but I suggest you follow Jens’s advice and read the full book!

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